Forget boycotts, get PARENTS to 'opt-out' of tests for 4-year olds

Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will debate whether teachers ought to boycott the government’s proposed ‘tests for 4-year olds’. But the NUT are missing a trick. Instead of pushing teachers into looking like work-shirkers, why not encourage parents to opt-out of the tests?
The opt-out strategy is currently being used, with reasonable success, across the US in response to a country-wide policy requiring students to sit various tests and have the results be reported to the state and federal government.
From the US government perspective, wanting to know pupil progress over time is not an unreasonable desire. How can you evaluate if children are progressing, or teachers are performing well, or taxpayer money is being spent effectively if you don’t have a ‘baseline’ figure from which to check progress? (And ongoing results to see how the cohort is improving?)
But the test opposers have been smart. Even if wanting data is sensible, tests make parents nervous. It’s their kids they are handing over – the thing they hold most precious. If you can make parents not want their kids to sit the tests, what the government wants pales into comparison.
So how did test-opposers make parents want to ‘opt-out’ of government tests?
First, they got organised. Facebook groups, twitter, and blogs were all used to create letters for parents to send to schools saying they were removing their child from exams. The OptOutOfStandardizedTest wiki is packed with this sort of info.
Second, they stoked concerns about data protection. Would a child’s score ever be leaked? Could it be used to deny them provisions? Could it be asked for many years later and used against them? (Sounds crazy, but there are examples of this kind of behaviour that makes me think it’s nowhere near as unlikely as we would think it to be in England).
Third, they repeated the use of the phrase ‘standardized’ tests and all the grungy ideas of ‘measuring children’ that comes with it. No one likes to think of their child being ‘standardized’. Mention the cattle-market, Brave New World-ness of it often enough and you can basically creep parents into opting-out.
Fourth, they played on nostalgia. “Remember when you were four/seven/ten and played in the sunshine for hours? Well your child will be locked inside revising”. Cue pics of exhausted children sleeping on textbooks while pristine swing sets sit abandoned. *sob*
Could this work in England?
Potentially. Even just going for a more straightforward line would likely do it: “Parents, if you don’t want your child to have to sit onerous tests that the government will record and keep on file about your child forever please send this letter”
After all, how are Conservative politicians going to argue that parents shouldn’t have such power? The whole premise of Conservativism is that the family should have as much autonomy as possible. With increasing awareness of Data Protection, plus recent outrages over the sale of NHS records and people’s tax information, it’s possible the records angle would have traction too.
Should the unions follow this line?
Ultimately, I don’t know if tests for four year-olds are a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with that age group. But what I do think is that parent opinion is more powerful, and likely more important, than teachers on this one. If they really don’t want this, it will be hard for the government to argue. If they don’t care, if they think “this would be quite useful”, then the teaching profession should probably let it go. The public pay our wages and send us their children. If they’re okay with their children doing the test, I’d likely trust their judgement.
Either way, though, if I was leading a union wanting to oppose the tests I’d absolutely be starting with parent boycotts before teacher ones. It’s easy to spin teachers as being lazy and difficult. But get the Parents’ Army onside, and politicians may well find themselves facing a group who are impossible to defeat.

What Academies should and shouldn't do with their cash….

After the recent Guardian story about academies paying millions of pounds to private firms for educational services there has been a surge of interest in the way schools are spending taxpayer money. It is important to remember that academies are not alone in spending tax-cash with private firms. Every school will buy items from private companies – whether stationery, or textbooks, or computers. What matters much more in the case of academies is who the money goes to and whether or not there is a dodgy link between the people operating the school and the people they are paying out to.
For example, as the Guardian article notes:

Grace Academy, which runs three schools in the Midlands and was set up by the Tory donor Lord Edmiston, has paid more than £1m either directly to or through companies owned or controlled by Edmiston, trustees’ relatives and to members of the board of trustees.

This is more problematic than your local school handing a hundred quid to whsmith for post-it notes because it suggests that decisions on how money was spent might have been based on nepotism rather than the best interests of students.
Of course, the academy founders could rightly argue that monies paid to family members did represent the best use of cash. To prove this, they should be meeting the standards described by Edward Timpson in a recent Parliamentary Question answer:

Ed Timpson Answer

So, if journalists really wish to see what is going on with academy expenditure they need to look and see if (a) the processes for procuring items/services were competitive, and (b) if  amounts paid were above market rate. If academies are not following the processes as outlined by Timpson then there is a problem.
In fact, it is worth all of us in education taking note and keeping an eye on this. Being a teacher soon tells you that people tend to behave better when they know a monitoring eye is watching.

All You Will Hear About Charter Schools Until 2017

From the 2013 CREDO Study
From the 2013 CREDO Study

This is Figure 1 from the 2013 CREDO Study Executive Summary. Get used to seeing it. I suspect it will soon become a new classic reference in education debate.
By matching every student in a Charter School with a similar student in a nearby school, CREDO aims to see if there is a difference to reading and maths scores depending on the type of school a student attends.
If you read all the Parliamentary debates about Free Schools in the UK & New Zealand (as I did) you soon realise the enormous power of the Stanford CREDO studies. The 2009 CREDO was the most referenced study in the debates and not just by free school advocates – it is referenced by everyone.
The reason why both sides like CREDO is that it presents a mixed picture, manipulable to fit one’s long-held views. Back in 2009 CREDO showed that about a 1/3 of Charter schools were doing brilliantly, and about a 1/3 not so brilliantly. Advocates for the policy talked, constantly, about the first statistic; its opponents carped on about the latter.  (For a great read about such behaviour, I heartily recommend Henig’s “Spin Cycle” which forensically examines education stakeholder’s preference for point-scoring over proper debate).
From what I’ve read of the study so far, this 2013 study also presents a mixed picture. Students from groups who have traditionally received less good schooling and have been ‘underperformers’ look to be doing better in the new charters when compared to their “twin” in a traditional public school. This picture differs dependent on state, and dependent on the company running the school the student is in.
No doubt much commentary will start to pull these issues out. Until then, Figure 1 is likely to be the hit home message.

White Free School Meal Pupils do considerably worse at GCSEs than any other ethnic group

In Thursday’s Parliamentary Written Questions, information was released about the GCSE results of pupils who attend mainstream state-funded schools, have no special educational needs and are eligible for free schools. In essence: “poor kids”.
The results were broken down by ethnicity and show the % of students in each ethnic group who did not get a C grade or above in either Maths or English GCSE or both.
The numbers show that White Free School Meal students are, by some way, the group least likely to pass either a Maths or English GCSE. The number of White FSM students not passing English was 54.7% and in Maths it was 59.9%. The nearest classified ethnic group were ‘Mixed race’ FSM students of whom 42% did not pass English and 50.5% did not pass Maths. All other ethnic groups were lower again.
By this measure it appears White FSM students are nearly 10% more likely not to pass their English or Maths GCSE than a FSM student in any other ethnic group.
I’m offering no explanation for this. It’s nothing something I’ve looked at in enough detail to guess as to why. But I find it intriguing, and interesting, and something I thought I would shared – particularly as here in the US, where I am studying, I am sometimes looked at as if I am crazy when I try to explain that race is an important but ultimately very different issue here in the UK.
PS – I have no idea how the phrases ‘While’ and ‘Slack’ got into a Hansard publication. No doubt it’s the fault of schools who no longer teach spelling.
PPS – I am guessing the data is for 2010/11 because the 2012 data was not yet available. 

Medics Don't Always Use Research Well Either

It is fashionable in education at present for teacher to beat ourselves up for not using ‘enough’ evidence in our practice. When we get bored of that, its then fashionable to beat up educational researchers for not creating ‘usable-enough’ research. And when we get bored of that it’s really really fashionable to say that the government needs to start using research properly without saying at all where the government should get it from or why, once they had it, teachers might pay any attention it anyway.
The reason we (teachers) like to do this is because we think that medicine works this way.  Apparently there is a Body of Knowledge from which all doctors draw The Truth and that is how they heal people. It teaching just had The Truth, then everything would be dandy.
But, sad to say, it isn’t like that in medicine. Not really.
First, there is often lengthy debate about what should happen when a certain set of symptoms present themselves, or when a particular institutional issue keeps rearing its head (e.g. bed-blocking or MRSA infections). And then, even if a solution is agreed on in the research, it simply isn’t true that doctors and nurses keep engaged with this latest research and instantly implement it into practice.  Some might, but many don’t.
An interesting-if-lengthy paper on this very matter is called “The Nonspread of Inventions” and looks at just this matter. Often the inventions that stick are not merely a matter of evidence but of a series of circumstances coming together in the right way. Sometimes it is a strong ethos, it matches a government policy, it suits someone wanting a promotion, etc. but rarely does it come just down to the evidence.
Unfortunately that leaves us with a rather depressing conclusion that most research doesn’t make much difference, even if correct. Its implementation will ultimately be down to a series of factors that contribute as much to luck as they do to effort – though one must always stay alive to the possibility that we can get better at making those factors come about now that we know what they are.  Furthermore, the upside is that it means that we teachers can stop beating ourselves up – if even the doctors can’t solve this then what chance do we have?! – and, to their great relief, I’m pretty certain we can leave the academy and the politicians alone on this particular point too.

Making the Government Account for Accountability

In a recent LKMCo article I suggested that ‘accountability measures are eating themselves’ as the DfE are poised to introduce a new performance measure designed to correct errors in a previous (yet-still-to-be-published) measure.
The problem for the new measure is that they didn’t heed the advice of Dr Rebecca Allen who told the government that if they wanted to report on ‘low, middle and high’ ability groups of students then those groups should be comparable across schools.  The DfE did not listen.  In my blog I made the case that this means comparisons across schools are unfair.
Several journalist colleagues therefore declared they will not misuse the stastics. Unfortunately the Telegraph did not comply and wrote a story making the exact mistake I warned against prompting an outcry on Twitter from people using the initial LKMCo blog as evidence.
To further support my point Rebecca Allen ran the figures comparing the DfE’s version of her measure to her more accurate one. The results are fascinating and can be found on her website here, showing that the DfE figure vastly favours schools where students have a high ability profile on entry.
The initial defence was that this was because the data was not readily available to the DfE. Rebecca Allen disagreed. The Department are now reviewing the case. I am slightly concerned somewhere a statistician is about to be shot.